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Ramadan and Lebaran

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Idul Fitri, more commonly referred to in Indonesia as Lebaran, is the celebration that comes at the end of the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadhan. The Arabic meaning of Idul Fitri is “becoming holy again”.

The dates of the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, vary from year to year, as the Muslim calendar (Hijrah) is based on a lunar cycle of 29 or 30 days. The exact date is determined by the sighting of the new moon. These lunar calculations lead to an official announcement by the government on the eve of Ramadan and Idul Fitri so that the faithful know when to begin and end the fasting month. In 2014, Ramadan is expected to start around June 28th and Lebaran will fall on 28-29 July, with most offices and businesses taking "collective leave" From July 31 to August 1st.

Ramadan

To understand the significance of Lebaran, an understanding about the fasting month of Ramadhan is important. During the month of Ramadhan, Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, marital relations or getting angry during the daylight hours. In addition, those fasting are supposed to refrain from bad habits - lying, getting angry, using bad language as well as to be more diligent in prayer and give to charities. It is believed that fasting heightens spirituality and develops self-control.

The fast begins in the morning just before sunrise, at Imsak, and is broken at maghrib which falls at sunset. Fasting during the month of Ramadhan is one of the five pillars of Islam and an obligation for devout Muslims.

Those who are expected to fast include: adults (defined as those who have reached the age of puberty) and those who are sane. Those who are not expected to fast include: children, women having their period, travelers, the sick, those with long-term illnesses, pregnant or breastfeeding women and the mentally ill.

The faithful who fast awaken early in the morning to have a meal before subuh. In order to awaken the faithful, the call to prayer is sounded from neighborhood mosques. In addition, groups of young boys or devoted individuals walk around neighborhoods beating on drums and other noise makers to awaken the faithful (and their neighbors) yelling out "sahur, sahur".

The breaking of the fast at sunset is a normally very social occasion for which special foods are prepared for gatherings with family or friends. Upon hearing the sound of the bedug drum on the television or radio as well as the call to prayer from the local neighborhood mosque at sunset, the faithful know it's time to break their fast, or buka puasa. This is usually done with a very sweet drink and sweet snacks. Maghrib prayers are made before a full meal is served. Taraweh congregational prayers are held in neighborhood mosques and at gatherings every evening at about 7:30 p.m. These prayers are not compulsory, but they are attended and enjoyed by many.

The schedule for Imsak and Maghrib is posted in major newspapers and on the television throughout Indonesia, as well as published in handouts by major religious organizations.

While it is expected that people will keep to their normal activities during the fast, needless to say the lack of liquid and food during the day and the unusual sleep and meal schedule soon take their toll. During the fasting month you may see that sleep and food deprivation cause those fasting to have reduced energy levels as well as finding it more difficult to concentrate on tasks.

Why does Islam oblige its followers to fast during Ramadhan each year?

  • To develop compassion for the poor and needy who feel hungry every day.
  • As a spiritually and physically cleansing experience. Just as in other world religions, fasting is seen as an opportunity to separate yourself from the things of this world and to concentrate on your relationship with God.
  • To become closer to God by contemplating his will in your life.
  • To build self-discipline and to become a better person.

How does Ramadhan affect expatriates?

  • The overall pace of life overall slows down. Things take longer to get accomplished both at home and at the office.
  • Your live-in household staff will arise very early in the morning to prepare their pre-dawn meal and many try to complete their heavy chores early in the morning just after they've eaten. If their pre-sunrise noise is bothering your family, talk with your staff to see how they can reduce their noise levels while your family is still asleep.
  • Your household staff may need a nap mid-morning or in the afternoon to keep pace with their altered sleeping and eating schedules.
  • Muslims that may not normally be diligent in observing the obligatory five prayers a day, may begin to pray regularly during this time, necessitating their absence from work for about 10-15 minutes.
  • It would be best to schedule difficult tasks before or after Ramadhan to achieve your workers best efforts.
  • Your cook will not be able to taste the foods she is cooking for you.
  • Your driver will appreciate it if you can let him break the fast in the car with a drink of water and a sweet snack, if he is driving you home at sunset. If possible, schedule your travel either before or after Maghrib.
  • Street food vendors and some restaurants close during the day and some restaurants stop serving alcohol. The government orders the closing of night entertainment centers during the first day and the last day of Ramadhan. Some establishments that are in 5 star hotels or better known clubs will be allowed to operate; however will have shortened hours throughout the month. You won't have any trouble finding seating at restaurants throughout Jakarta for lunch, but dinner may be more difficult. Buffets catering to those breaking their fast at sunset offer a delicious array of Indonesian specialties.
  • You may be awoken early in the morning by the enthusiastic young people parading through the neighborhood (DON'T tell them to be quiet! This would be extremely offensive, just quietly endure.)
  • Food prices rise dramatically as Lebaran nears. Supermarkets will become extremely busy as people are looking for special treats to break the fast each evening, and especially the 2 or 3 days prior to Lebaran as they prepare for the feasts at the end of the fasting month.
  • Your household staff will most probably want to take one to two weeks off to visit their family in the village and you'll be left to cope without a cook, driver, watchman and helpers. Consequently, restaurants do a brisk trade during this period as families eat out more often than usual.
  • It is a government regulation that a one-month bonus is paid to all household staff and salaried employees in offices and factories near the end of the fasting month. This is referred to as THR (tay-ha-err) Tunjangan Hari Raya, or bulan ketigabelas - the 13th month.
  • An increased level of patience and tolerance is required when dealing with workers who are fasting.
  • Do not speak harshly with those fasting as if they get angry or have negative feelings towards others it invalidates their fasting for that day.
  • Traffic jams from the afternoon rush hour start earlier as many office workers are allowed to leave earlier than usual to get home in time to break the fast with family and friends.
  • It's difficult to schedule travel in Indonesia near the end of Ramadhan due to the annual exodus of 7+ million city dwellers to their hometowns.
  • You may feel uncomfortable eating or drinking before your fasting staff/friends. It would be considerate to refrain from eating or drinking in front of others that are fasting.
  • Your neighborhood association may organize a charitable drive for the poor in your neighborhood. It is advised that you contribute to this drive as a gesture of good faith and your membership in the local community.
  • You'll notice a big increase in beggars at traffic lights as the poor flock into the city from the villages at this traditional time of heightened charity giving.
  • You will notice a growing excitement amongst your Muslim friends, colleagues and staff as Lebaran approaches and they make plans for their special celebration.
  • Noise from the local mosques will increase in volume and frequency - read these tips for accommodating a noisy mosque.

Lebaran

At the end of the month of Ramadhan and its special religious observance is the Eid holiday, called Idul Fitri or Lebaran in Indonesia. In Indonesia, this is the time when Muslims visit their family and friends to ask for forgiveness for any wrongs they have committed in the previous year. They express this wish in the phrase “Mohon Maaf Lahir Batin” which means "forgive me from the bottom of my heart/soul for my wrongdoings in the past year". A traditional Arabic (Muslim) greeting for the Eid celebrations is also commonly used in Indonesia "Minal Aidin Wal Fa Idzin", which is expressed upon meeting friends and family during the festive days. Traditional foods are consumed, family and friends gather to ask forgiveness and exchange greetings, new clothing is worn, children receive gifts of money and visits are made to recreational parks -- all to celebrate the successful completion of the fasting month. On Java, prior to the start of the fasting month (but not during it), visits are made to the graves of family ancestors (nyekar) to pay respects, clean the grave and leave flowers, causing major traffic jams near all major cemeteries.

Idul Fitri begins with mass prayer gatherings early in the morning at mosques, open fields, parks and on major streets. It is an amazing sight to see rows of hundreds of Muslim women all dressed in their mukena (white, head-to-toe prayer gowns) performing the synchronized prayer ritual. Muslim men tend to wear sarong, traditional shirts and peci hats to Idul Fitri morning prayers. On the walk home from the mass prayers, quick visits are made to friends in the neighborhood to ask for forgiveness.

Following the morning prayers and neighborhood visits, visits are made to close family members around town. Family members go to their parents first and then to the most senior relative's house (oldest person in the family) to “Mohon Maaf ...” with family members. Then depending on your age/status in the family, you visit aunts and uncles homes to do the same. At each house drinks and cookies or snacks are served, and since it is very impolite to refuse the food, by the end of the day you are so full you can hardly move. These customs may entail several days of visiting relatives and often there will be a gathering of family members at the senior-most relative's house.

Employees may also visit the homes of their senior bosses in the company or critical business colleagues and government officials to "Mohon Maaf ... " after their family visits are completed. In Jakarta, these customs entail days and days of visiting relatives and colleagues resulting in a great time of family reunions and upset to normal working/living schedules. Many people also take the opportunity of the Lebaran holiday to visit recreational parks.

While gathering with family, it is customary for the adults to give the young children some money; they may meet even greet you at the door shaking their wallets! It is also customary to distribute money to children in the poor neighborhoods around your home; small bills given to children will bring huge smiles to their faces! Pick up a supply from your bank well in advance of the holiday.

Strongly held traditions to visit family at this time necessitate the exodus of and estimated 7.13 million (2011 estimated figures) people from Jakarta alone, as well as additional millions from other urban centers, to rural villages and hometowns for the Lebaran holiday. The logistics of this exodus causes enormous headaches for the government each year. During this period the streets in Jakarta are nearly empty as the population decreases dramatically. The hardships and inconveniences endured by the travelers in overcrowded buses, trains and cars is unbelievable, yet they feel that this is a small price to pay to spend the holidays with their family and friends. Traditionally these urban dwellers return to the village with gifts or money for their family, purchased with their earnings from the previous year, or their holiday THR bonus.

There are two peaks to this exodus which cause major logistical nightmares: 1) the departure from the urban areas back to the home village/town a few days before Idul Fitri and 2) the return to the town of residence normally 1-2 weeks later.

They often return from the exodus accompanied by relatives and friends looking for work in the cities, furthering the pressures of urbanization. The government attempts to prevent the “socially undesirable” such as beggars, vagrants and others from migrating to the cites, but the task is overwhelming.

During the weeks after Lebaran many groups hold halal bilhalal gatherings where employees from a company, friends, colleagues or members of an organization gather to share a meal and ask each other's forgiveness. Non-Muslims are often invited to participate in these festive gatherings also.

Various Traditions Associated with Ramadhan and Lebaran

Bazaar/Pasar Amal - Organized by various civic, charitable and neighborhood organizations, goods are sold at discounted prices to help the poor celebrate the holidays with new clothing and special foods.

Bedug Lebaran - The traditional bedug drums are beat at maghrib to notify the faithful that it is time to break the fast. Starting on the evening of the last day of Ramadhan and continuing throughout the night and into the following day, the bedug are also beaten in the Takbiran celebrations either in stationary locations, or in parades through the streets. Takbiran is the prayer and celebration heralding the Idul Fitri holiday. Loud and boisterous parades and celebrations are held throughout the entire nation, which includes drum beating accompanied by amplified prayer and lively Islamic music.

Bingkisan Lebaran - Elaborately wrapped parcels are given by business colleagues or associates to Muslims in the week prior to Lebaran. They are usually arranged in a rattan or wood basket and contain food, small household appliances or dishes.

Buka Puasa - Breaking the fast, the meal at sunset.

Busana Muslim - Fashionable Muslim apparel worn for festive occasions such as Lebaran.

Kartu Lebaran - Many people send greeting cards to their Muslim friends (whether they themselves are Muslim or not). For sale in shops throughout the city, Lebaran card designs should not depict people or animals. Geometric designs, mosques, traditional textiles or ketupat are common. Most cards have the date of 1 Syawal 141_ H written on the card. You need to fill in the appropriate year in the space. In 2014, the Hijrah year will be 1435, in 2015 it will be 1436, etc. Calligraphy artists design specialized cards for customers on sidewalks near post offices and major market areas.

Ketupat - Traditionally eaten at Lebaran, therhomboid-shaped ketupat casing is made of young coconut frond leaves that are still light green in color. Intricately woven by nimble fingered experts who can complete the weaving in 10 seconds, they are sold to the public at pasar (traditional markets) in bunches. The ketupat are filled with uncooked rice then steamed and left to cool before serving. The coconut leaf casing gives a unique flavor to the rice, one always associated with Lebaran. The ketupat is cut open, removed from the casing and cut into small chunks, then served with various accompanying vegetable and meat dishes (opor and sambal goreng), often cooked in spicy coconut milk.

Korma - Dates from Iraq, Tunisia, the US and Saudi Arabia make their annual appearance in markets and supermarkets for the breaking of the fast.

Mudik - The term for the exodus of millions of people from the urban centers to the villages in order to celebrate the Idul Fitri holiday with family and friends in the village. This is a strongly held tradition and travelers happily endure a lot of hardships and inconveniences in overcrowded cars, buses and trains with seasonally inflated prices.

Puasa - Fasting

Sungkem - The Javanese custom of asking for forgiveness at Idul Fitri which demonstrates the respect given by young people to the family elders. The young person kneels and bows their head to the elders' knees and asks for forgiveness.

Santunan Ramadhan - Donations to a charitable organization for distribution to the poor and needy at Lebaran.

Sembayang or Shalat - Ritual prayers that must be made five times each day by Muslims.

Takbiran - The prayer celebration on the evening of the last day of Ramadhan, to herald in the Idul Fitri holiday. Chants are praised to Allah, drums are beat endlessly, dances, songs, religious prayers and sermons are given in public displays of excitement and praise.

Zakat - The obligatory poor tax that is paid by Muslims during the Lebaran period. Zakat should total 2.5% of one's income, depending on the nature of the gift. Zakat is paid to charitable organizations, neighborhood groups or through direct distribution to the poor and needy in the neighborhood. Zakat tax is deductible in Indonesia; the funds can be deducted from your gross income before figuring taxes.

Another interesting article on this subject: Business Across Cultures: Fasting.

Housing and schooling information for expats in Indonesia expatriate website for Indonesia Indonesian language translation of article

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